Theaster Gates at Regen Projects

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Since this week opened with honors paid to Dr. Martin Luther King the art of Theaster Gates at Regen Projects has particular relevance. But To Be a Poor Race, as it is titled, is the first exhibition here by the Chicago-based black artist who has garnered significant coverage from mainstream media such as the New Yorker and the New York Times. In part, this is because he questioned the power of contemporary art to affect social or political change on its own and decided to do something about it.

Dirty Red, 2016
Fire hose, wood
Five panels
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Since 2009, his actions incrementally have transformed the Dorchester neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He began by converting a small abandoned house into a library with books purchased from a local store that was going out of business. Then he turned a defunct candy store into the Listening House by using stock from the record store that was closing. Next came the Black Cinema and in 2012, he bought the neighborhood bank, built in 1923, for $1 with the provision that he restore it. Now called Stoney Island Arts Bank, it stages art exhibitions and events. In less than a decade, with grit and hustle, Gates has resurrected the fragile culture of a potentially lost community.

Reliquery, 2016
Stoneware, fur pelts
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

How does an artist involved in such laudable activism maintain allegiance to producing actual objects of art? Allowing that activism is part of his art practice, does that power translate into his own art as it is shown in galleries and museums? The current show at Regen Projects would answer in the affirmative.

Mountain Aura, 2017
Latex and acrylic on aluminum panel
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Much of the work in the show hijacks the superficial form of late modern art by infusing it with additional, disturbing meaning. For example, long horizontal panels of red and gray actually are wrapped in strips of old firehoses, artifacts of what was used by police against black civil rights protesters. What appear to be paintings of hard-edge geometries duplicate data and charts compiled by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois about the status and activities of black populations in the south after emancipation. (The title of Gates' exhibition is taken from Du Bois's own 1903 observation: "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.")

Black Harmonics (detail), 2017
Bound Jet Magazines, steel shelves
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

What appear to be shelves of black-bound books contain copies of Jet, a weekly digest published from 1951 to 2014, primarily for a black readership. The spine of each volume is lettered in gold with the words of poems written by Gates. (He had acquired the Jet and Ebony magazine archives from the publisher, again preserving a threatened aspect of black culture, and previously exhibited them.) The magazines, reflecting the aspirations and frustrations of African American life, are immanent, in the spiritual sense, though they are not visible.

Frenzied Negro Adventures with Red, 2017
Latex and acrylic on aluminum panel
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

In most of this work, Gates does more than appropriate or re-represent an aspect of black culture or, for that matter, white culture. He responds, questions and interacts with all of it and this stance invites viewers to take part in his process, to come to their own conclusions or to take part in this ongoing discourse.

Video still from 'My country tis of thee' 2017
at Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest 
©Theaster Gates, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

One gallery is given over to a video of The Black Monks of Mississippi, a keyboard player and percussionist, playing their own joyfully irreverent version of "My country 'tis of thee." Gates is singing the lyrics, sometimes seriously, sometimes sarcastically, but always at the top of his voice and with gusto.

This video captures all the infectious delight that you feel Gates brings to his roles as artist, activist and, perhaps paradoxically, optimist. The show continues to February 25.